BETWEEN THE TRIAL of Chelsea (formerly known as Bradley) Manning and the revelations of Edward Snowden, the debate regarding the leakers and their information has focused primarily on the balance between liberty and security, or between government transparency and secrecy. This is a necessary, even overdue, discussion. But it is also important to reflect upon the lasting damage these unauthorized disclosures will have on future U.S. intelligence collection.
Both Manning and Snowden betrayed the public trust and disclosed national-security information that they had sworn to protect. Both seriously impeded America’s future ability to recruit foreign sources that provide human intelligence (HUMINT). And both harmed America’s ability to enter into cooperative relationships regarding signals intelligence (SIGINT) with foreign partner intelligence agencies—termed “liaison services” in the business.
The degree of access with which Manning was entrusted—hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, in addition to the so-called war logs of Afghanistan and Iraq—can be traced to the U.S. intelligence-community reforms suggested by the 9/11 Commission after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 Commission criticized the U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement communities for not connecting the dots and for hoarding information, thus leaving America vulnerable on 9/11. In the reckoning during the post-9/11 intelligence reforms, the enduring counterintelligence principle of “need to know” was transformed into “need to share,” a new paradigm that mandated that intelligence agencies share information broadly across bureaucratic lines and prepare analysis for the widest possible dissemination in order to prevent intelligence stovepiping.
This expansive conception of information sharing enabled a young army intelligence analyst to access diplomatic cables from around the world that had nothing to do with her core duties as a military-intelligence analyst serving in the Middle East. This access illustrates the distance that the intelligence-community pendulum has swung in the direction of almost-blind information sharing. If an event of the magnitude of 9/11 forced the pendulum in the direction of increased sharing, more recent events such as the Manning and Snowden leaks could reverse the trend back toward greater compartmentalization, especially involving more stringent information-technology protection.
TO CALCULATE or quantify the amount of damage that a document might cause if improperly disclosed, the U.S. government looks to the sliding scale of its classification system; logically, the more sensitive a document, the higher the classification. According to Executive Order 12356, revelation of a “Confidential” document causes “damage” to U.S. national security, exposure of a “Secret” document causes “serious damage” and a “Top Secret” document’s contents would cause “exceptionally grave damage” if improperly disclosed. This system makes sense for characterizing damage to U.S. national security at a fixed point in time, but it is woefully inadequate to assess the future impact of such disclosures. It may not be possible to charge a leaker under the law on the basis of what might have been obtained had it not been for their negligent public disclosures, but despite the lack of legal recourse, it is worth at least discussing the intelligence ramifications past the time and date stamp on the document itself. It is true that time horizons factor into damage assessments because many classified documents contain automatic declassification dates that usually range from ten to thirty years in the future. However, most documents dealing with HUMINT sources and SIGINT methods usually fall under several exemption codes and are not automatically declassified at any point in time.
It remains hotly debated whether Manning’s revelations actually led to the deaths of either U.S. soldiers or foreign sources. For instance, in 2010 Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that “the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family” might be on Manning’s hands. Indeed, it is easy to see why this could be the case judging by the sheer volume, and the classification levels, of material that was released. Others have disputed this claim based on the recent courtroom testimony by the Pentagon’s damage-assessment team in the Manning trial. Mullen may not have been referring exclusively to American military deaths that may have been caused because the locations, timing or movements of soldiers were divulged, but rather in terms of revenge attacks whose seeds may have germinated in the outrage over American military mistakes caught on film, such as the widely known case of the helicopter pilot accidentally engaging a media crew or other tragic incidents involving civilians (described by the misnomer “collateral damage”).
Nevertheless, the scope of this debate so far has been about water under the bridge. It would be appropriate to consider the water that will now not pass under said bridge to fill American intelligence aquifers. Thus far the debate about the damage wrought by Manning and Snowden has only dealt with what has been revealed about U.S. intelligence and diplomacy; surprisingly, there has been little public discourse regarding the future implications for U.S. intelligence of their wanton actions. Perhaps the popular choice of terms is to blame for this narrow discourse. The term “leak” suggests a drip that, over time, might result in a problem but in the short term is more of a nuisance than an emergency. The opposite of a deluge, of course, is a drought. If intelligence agencies must perform all-source analysis in order to connect the proverbial dots, what happens if a single important dot never materializes?Image: Pullquote: Mass disclosure of classified information was never part of the risk calculus of a potential human-intelligence source. Surely, it is now.Essay Types: Essay